(An original short story.)
First, an announcement: Due to personal reasons, I’m putting this week’s Writing Romance post on hold for another week. I didn’t post two weeks ago because I was still recovering from covid, and while I’m much better now (thanks for asking), other things have come up and I haven’t had a chance to write it.
So, in the meantime, please enjoy this completely unrelated short story instead! XD
This short story was inspired by the overture to Songs from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt by Missy Mazzoli.
The circus grounds Felix called “work” were dark and forbidding at night, but staying inside his caravan was making him fidget. He finally picked up his black coat and left, locking his door against the cold and rain.
He trudged through the large field with his head down, down the well-beaten but deserted track, and into the bustling suburb.
He pushed his tall hat on firmly against the drizzle, his woollen coat tugged as tight to his body as it would go. The pedestrians kept their necks tucked into their collars and hands in their pockets. For once, he could blend into the crowd. Not just in appearance, but in purpose.
They were all looking for something that night. Not a specific person or a place, but anything that carried a certain feeling; a balance between old and new, welcoming and exclusive; a place to hide in the crowd and yet feel like you were the only one there.
He followed the crowd, through the dripping streets, under foggy gas lamps, past old posters advertising politicians who now seemed to cry and sag in the rain. He let them take him downtown, around a large hotel on the corner, and into a narrow doorway just to the right.
Felix followed curiously, wondering momentarily if he’d like what he was going to find.
But as soon as he stopped outside the little wooden door, his head tilted to better receive the beautiful notes, he knew he would.
I know that voice, he thought, looking up.
He opened the door and went downstairs, the walls brushing his shoulders on either side. The corridor widened at the bottom into a small bar, dimly lit, reeking of tobacco smoke and sweat, crushing with people. They’d given up on ordering drinks; it made too much noise. The bartender leaned against the countertop, his eyes glazed over and thoughtful. He didn’t want to break the moment either, it seemed, not even for an extra dime.
The moment was created by Vera; Felix would recognise her voice anywhere. The deep, almost-operatic sadness with an occasional break, like a notch in the lip of an otherwise perfect glass. His father had hired her a decade ago for the circus, as an intermission act. Felix himself had managed her for six years since he’d taken over the circus, before she’d resigned, disappearing straight after her last performance.
Vera sat on a tiny raised platform at the far end of the room, on a little stool veiled by her skirts. She sang with her eyes downcast, her chin tilted in a strange, effortless linger. Her dark curls had dimmed since he’d last seen her, her shawl wrapped around shoulders that seemed thinner. Perhaps it was just the dim lighting, or the way her head was tilted.
Her black eyes flicked up as a cool breeze floated in behind Felix, and when she saw him, her spine snapped straight, her voice notching in time with her flinch.
He touched his hat as she settled, smiling at her. She didn’t smile back.
Come on, Vera, he thought. No matter how hard my circus was, it wasn’t this bad, was it? At least it wasn’t cold and dirty.
She didn’t stop singing, but he could tell from the hardness in her eyes that a job offer would not be worth his breath.
He shrugged, looking around the otherwise silent bar. His tent seats had been empty lately, but here people stood shoulder-to-shoulder around the walls. It seemed all his customers had grown up from circuses and now found entertainment here. Perhaps Vera had simply followed them.
Perhaps they had followed her.
But his presence had stiffened her spine and her voice. She no longer flowed between notes, but instead snapped from one to another, and though her eyes flicked down to the floor in front of her, her chin no longer tilted effortlessly, but indignantly.
Felix’s eyes flicked over to the pianist who sat just off the stage, his ragged velvet jacket slung over the edge of the piano stool. He never looked up at Vera, never even lifted his eyes from his fingers as they dusted the yellowed keys. He was skinny and hunched, but as Vera’s voice tensed, his fingers tensed, as though by instinct, and he let off a string of notes like gunfire.
Vera’s eyes wandered over to Felix lazily, but as soon as she’d confirmed he was still there, she turned back to the silent audience.
By the next time her gaze comes around, he decided, I must be gone.
But he waited outside, the door closed behind him. He had wanted something old but new, and her voice… that chance encounter had spun sparks into her voice, and she flinched between notes instead of lazily drifting from one to the other.
Are they listening in there, or just enjoying the quiet? Felix wondered. For a moment, he was tempted to open the door again, but Vera’s voice was settling again, back into her familiar lazy lilt. Perhaps they’re just using the sound as an excuse to stop talking and working, and simply think.
He shook himself upright with an amused smile. After all, that’s what I’m doing.
But he stayed, listening to the raindrops and footsteps, the snatches of cracked melodies and echoes of chords, until his thoughts drowned them all out.
Felix folded his arms. What I would give to get her back, he thought. But why wouldn’t she consider it? Did she prefer the meagre pay of a dim, tiny bar to the fun and lights of the circus?
Perhaps she did. Perhaps, as she’d grown older, a tiny bar crammed with silent, thinking people was more appealing to the lights and noise of a family circus.
Or perhaps she had found an audience she liked in the circus, and as they’d grown up and started thinking instead of watching, and drinking instead of laughing, she’d followed them.
Felix closed his eyes, savouring the cold, the sadness, the almost-perfection for a moment. Is it the place, or the people that brought you here? he wondered, wishing his thoughts could echo down the stairs to her.
But even if the answer was written in her face, he wouldn’t be able to read it from up there. The aching questions in his chest pushed him away from the door, away from a past time, and back into the pressing crowd.
This time, he pushed against the crowd, back to the circus and away from the nostalgia; the singer who seemed to welcome everyone to listen, except him.
Who could look around a crowded bar and pick out one man she didn’t want to see.
He pushed his hands down in his pockets, clenching his fists against the damp air. Perhaps Vera had come for the same reason as him… and everyone else.